From the case to the stage

Some of Alaska State Museum's native treasures and artifacts are brought out of display for Celebration

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

The week before Celebration is often one of the busiest times of the year at the Alaska State Museum. Items placed at the museum for safekeeping are checked out for use in various performances throughout the weekend.

There are two kinds of objects at the museum, Steve Henrikson said.

"One set of items are things that are placed on loan here by clans for safekeeping," he said. "These are things that the museum can make of as far as educational purposes. At the same time we can offer a very secure place for people to store some of their priceless artifacts. Mostly we check these things out when there's a potlatch or another traditional ceremony.

"The other category is things that are in the museum collection, but with which we have agreement with clans in town. We can let them take them out under controlled circumstances. It all has to be done under an agreement."

The agreements involve a set of conditions that take into account the security of the item and protection from water damage, heat and humidity.

The Alaska State Museum has five such artifacts that come with one of these agreements: two headdresses, a Chilkat robe, a beaded shirt, and a song leader's staff. These items belong to the traditional owner, but the legal owner is the Alaska State Museum.

The museum has about a dozen objects on loan to it. The owners can take them out when they need to use them.

"There are some items that the clans have decided to put on loan to the museum, because the museum has a controlled environment," said Harold Jacobs, the cultural resources specialist for Tlingit-Haida Central Council. "When they need it, they'll check their object out."

The museum's dragonfly headdress, on loan from the Kootznoowoo Corporation, is one of those items. It's considered priceless, as are the other items.

This year, Jacobs will check out a blanket and a tunic from the Alaska State Museum. The blanket has been kept by five generations of caretakers. The tunic was made in Klukwan in the 1870s. Five generations of caretakers can be traced, Jacobs said.

"For things that we don't own, we're always advocating for the preservation of the artifact," Henrikson said. "And if anyone asks for our help to figure out how to do that, we're happy to produce that kind of information. If someone is wearing their own regalia out in the rain, that's their decision, although I really haven't seen that happen. To clans, the regalia is just as important to them as the artifacts are to the museum. And they take very good care of the material."

"Anytime something leaves the building it's a risk, but these items were never really meant to just be stationary and kept under glass," Henrikson said. "They're meant to be worn and in movement."

In fact, Henrikson notes, many of the items' Tlingit names refer to the motion or the sound that they make when they're being used.

The Chilkat robe's name, Naaxein, refers to its long, hanging dancing fringe. A rattle is called Sheishoox for the sound it makes when it's being shook.

"It's really thrilling to get to see things come out of the static display that the museum has them artificially exhibited in," Henrikson said. "Suddenly you see them on stage, and they're put into motion with songs that were written in reference to some of these objects."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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